Ken and Velma Nicholson haven’t left their apartment in south Grand Forks, except for medical appointments, for the past several weeks. They’re adhering to public health directives that urge seniors to shelter in place, because -- due to their age -- they are among those most vulnerable to coronavirus.

“We go out as little as we have to,” Velma Nicholson said.

But, thanks to the Grand Forks Senior Center’s Meals on Wheels program, they are maintaining a nutritious, well-balanced diet, which is essential to their good health.

Since the disruption in lifestyle caused by the spread of COVID-19 starting in mid-March, the Senior Center has seen a sharp increase in the number of meals it is providing to elderly residents.

On March 16, the center canceled all activities indefinitely and, on March 17, began offering a noontime, drive-thru meal pick-up program for people age 60 and older. Staff accepted no payment -- to limit person-to-person contact -- but recipients could keep track of the number of meals received and pay later, said Jami Schumacher, public relations manager.

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In the past four weeks or so, the center has distributed about 10,000 meals, including drive-thru and home delivery, to elderly clients. This compares to the roughly 4,000 meals per month, on average, before March 17.

Drive-thru pickup, available from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. weekdays, replaces the dine-in option at the center. Before the pandemic struck, the average number of seniors who gathered for a noon meal in the center’s dining room ranged from 50 to 75 a day, Schumacher said.

In its noontime, drive-thru program, the center is averaging about 190 to 200 meals a day, she said.

Because the center has a small kitchen staff and a small kitchen, Colette Iseminger, the center’s director, put out a call for and received assistance from area restaurants to help prepare, primarily, the frozen main entree. The Boardwalk Bar and Grill and the Ground Round stepped up.

“It was a way for us to scale up quite quickly,” Schumacher said. “It’s a win-win-win situation -- for the restaurants, because they need the business right now, for us and for the seniors.”

‘Very important’ delivery

Every Monday, the Nicholsons receive enough meals to last them for seven days -- two hot, ready-to-eat noon meals for Monday and 12 frozen meals. They also receive “cold bags” containing cartons of milk, bread and fruit or a dessert.

They are among 100 clients who receive Meals of Wheels from the Grand Forks Senior Center on Monday through Thursday.

Velma and Ken Nicholson, 76 and 81, respectively, began getting Meals on Wheels in November after moving to Grand Forks from Florida.

“Our daughter, who lives here, set it up for us,” Velma said.

The Meals on Wheels program is “very important” to the Nicholsons, according to Velma.

I’m not able to stand up long enough to cook a meal," she said.

“We do our own breakfast and lunch and save that (first) meal for the evening,” she said, noting that she and her husband have really enjoyed the food.

Among their favorite entrees are the meatballs and meatloaf, she said, noting that "they are all very good.”

Among those who receive home-delivered meals, the “frail elderly” are the most vulnerable of the community’s residents, said Schumacher.

“They are our first priority, making sure they have the nutrition that they need," said Schumacher, adding that the main goal is to keep seniors out of grocery stores as much as possible.

“I certainly appreciate the grocery stores and the other stores that are giving those ‘senior hours,’ but we know the way to keep them the safest is to keep them out of public. So if we can limit or extend the time between grocery store visits, so they only have to go once a month to the grocery store, we just really want to help them get the nutrition they need and keep them as safe as possible.”

In the past, Meals on Wheels were delivered each weekday, but when pandemic restrictions required less personal contact, they were shifted to once a week. The weekly delivery system also addressed the shortage of volunteers available to deliver the meals.

Special needs

In addition to the Meals on Wheels program, the Senior Center also offers the Home Delivered Meals program, with food prepared with special dietary needs in Altru’s kitchen.

Schumacher said one of the benefits of delivering meals to the home was that volunteers could check on the seniors each weekday. Since deliveries were reduced to once a week last month, staff members and volunteers have been making wellness phone checks on these seniors on a daily basis.

"I feel what we're doing really matters," she said.